The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is embarking on a study of online news distribution amid rising concern about the news industry's financial troubles which have been exacerbated by the global economic downturn. It is part of the Working Party on the Information Economy's ongoing work on Digital Broadband Content. Last month, to launch the study, representatives from OECD countries and interested organisations heard four several presentations on how news production and distribution is changing, and what the future might be .
Crises and a broken business model: how a news agency reacts
Eric Scherer is director of strategy and external relations at Agence-France Presse, and founder of AFP's Mediawatch blog. He explained to the OECD the nature of the crisis which he believes is taking place, and the steps that an outlet such as AFP is taking.
He sees a situation where five simultaneous crises took place, in terms of economics, business model, attention, training and authority. The economic value of the traditional press is going down as the mainstream tries to adapt to new trends. The current business model is "broken," he believes: it was based largely on advertising and a small amount of circulation revenue but in the past two to three years there has been a "historic decoupling" of advertising and newspapers as classified ads have moved online. The old media now has to run after attention as it faces competition from new. Training is a "huge problem" according to Scherer: it has to be done quickly but people at the top are not sufficiently aware of the challenges. And finally, the authority of old media is declining quickly as the top-down relationship falls apart.
What is more, Scherer believes that a process of disintermediation has taken place in news: the media has been cut out, as those who want to get their message out go straight to the people. He cited Obama's election campaign and use of new media as a "symbol" of this, pointing out that the future president used every single internet and Web 2.0 tool to communicate with the public. And the people responded: at every Obama demonstration there were attendees talking photos with their digital cameras or phones which they then uploaded and posted online. Sports stars are also speaking directly to the people, Scherer pointed out. This is the main development in the media in recent times, that the people who were deprived of production and distribution tools now have them. Hence, old media's monopoly is over, what used to be scarce, is now abundant.
The Internet has led to the "atomisation of content," meaning that readers can 'snack' on content as they are always one click away from something else, according to Scherer. Print and online are mutually conflicting business models, but going online-only is not necessarily the best idea, he explained, referring to a City University study on online-only Finnish paper Taloussanomat.
These problems have all be exacerbated by the financial crisis, Scherer said, which makes it so much harder to finance the transition period and find a business model. Before the crisis hit, it seemed as if news outlets would have time to adapt, but now they are "below the poverty level."
So, how can news organisations finance their work? Is it possible in the current climate to find a way to finance an investigative journalism network and a Baghdad bureau? Scherer described how AFP has been tackling these challenges of the new news ecosystem. AFP produces all the main "bricks of content" and now needs to be able to link them together an add technical context. Rather than just providing editorial content, the agency now offers its traditional media customers both content and services, such as video, mobile or user-generated content platforms.
Due to the increased competition for breaking news, as the Internet means that newspapers and other outlets can effectively act as wire services and AFP's competitors are no longer just Reuters and the Associated Press, AFP has chosen to increase its national and international coverage and rely and focus on its branding. Amongst all the "noise on the internet," Scherer believes that people feel safer when they know their news comes from a trusted brand.
The Internet has also meant that AFP has become not just a business to business operation, but also has a direct relationship with the consumer, as its articles are available online under the AFP brand, via search engines such as Google or Yahoo. Incidentally, the Associated Press, which has also traditionally kept the audience at a distance, is going a step further and seeking to create search "landing pages" on news topics for its readers.
The evolution of the Internet as a journalistic tool
Thomas Crampton's presentation on the value of new technologies for communications was delivered true to style: it was recorded on a mobile phone video application while the writer went through security in a Hong Kong airport.
Crampton's career path has developed simultaneously with the evolution of new technologies as a communications tool: as a correspondent at the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times, he always tried to capitalise on available online and digital tools to ensure that his reporting was always at the cutting edge of news provision. Nonetheless, frustration with the reticence of the traditional media to embrace alternative outlets to their full potential pushed him to leave the print industry for fear of "being left behind". He is now the Asia Pacific Director of Digital Influence at Ogilvy.
The responsibilities of this position convey Crampton's conviction and "passion" for the new media. In this role he works with multinationals to tap into new technology, which enable companies and individuals to reach and communicate with a huge audience. The progressive outlet of other industries reinforces Crampton's dismay with what he sees as the reluctance of news providers to work with these possibilities.
To illustrate his conviction that technological evolution is a great but unavoidable asset for news provision, Crampton outlined the developments of the relationship between news reporting and the Internet:
- - 1995-99 Communications: During this period, the Internet facilitated the internal communications of news providers; for example correspondents could communicate with the home bureau through email, greatly reducing time. The web, however, was not at this point seen as a way to distribute or research news.
- - 2000-2004 Research: The Internet developed into an information finding tool, enabling reporters to assemble facts for stories that would otherwise be unattainable. Applications such as Google Cache allowed correspondents in the field to find elusive information and file updates, reducing their previously pressing need to continuously collaborate with the home office. Moreover, as information became accessible from anywhere in the world once connected to the web, newsrooms found that they could function without some foreign bureaus or correspondents.
- - 2004 to present Social Media: The emergence of social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter have affected not only the way news is reported, but how information is distributed. As a result, traditional roles in the information stream dynamic are merging: the audience are now sharers, publishers and broadcasters as much as they are consumers of information.
It is in this current situation in which Crampton suggests news providers have lost their direction, apparently overwhelmed by the challenges thrown up by the proliferation of platforms and the attendant dissolution of information monopolies. To surmount these problems, news providers needed to proceed with a flexible, open attitude to the creation of new business models. However, Crampton indicates that their wariness led to the internal creation of limitations, citing the ongoing debate about online subsidies and paid for content as a detrimental and futile drain of resources.
Crampton felt that the traditional frameworks were restricting journalists from making "headway" in the wider field of communications and reporting. He began to "push boundaries, both externally and internally". The launch of his own blog enabled him to create his own "digital identity", establishing a persona beyond that of his employer. Indeed, the importance of 'branding' in the journalism professional was highlighted by the anecdote that when Crampton's name was typed into a search engine, whilst still at the IHT, his personal blog was listed before that of the publication. Once Crampton had left the paper, he devoted himself to diffusing information through new technologies, unrestrained by company rule and protocol. The results have been 'liberating', allowing the writer to establish a "complex and rich dialogues" with otherwise "unreachable audiences".
Crampton offers a shining testimony to the current and potential value of new technologies in communications. It is a strong message to news providers that innovation is necessary. Due to the use of multiple media outlets, Crampton perceives himself to be at the "front line of communication". Yet, whilst Crampton's departure from the printed press has produced exciting results, the feasibility of this as a career pathway for the majority of journalists, especially those just starting out is questionable.
Before becoming digitally "independent" Crampton had established a reputation as a reporter, during a decade of front line correspondence for prestigious titles. These experiences, gained thanks to the printed press, would have allowed Crampton to obtain a readership, a sum of which have presumably continued to follow and recommend him as changed outlets. It may be that if reporters are to succeed on the digital and online scenes, without having the safety net of affiliation with an established publication, they need to have more ammunition than just writing ability. With the abundance of breaking news online, there is increasing demand for critical, in depth pieces written by experts. In short, there are signs that markets are becoming more "niche" which is requiring journalists to assert their value by finding a speciality.
Could stakeholder journalism be the future?
Mark Hunter, a founding member of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and Senior Research Fellow at INSEAD spoke about what he sees as the declining credibility of traditional news and the subsequent rise of 'stakeholder journalism.' He believes that concentration of ownership has contributed to reduced credibility of traditional media as readers will increasingly question whether owners have their own agenda. Hunter sees the news industry's current problems as a vicious circle starting with this: declining credibility leads to declining audience, leading to declining revenue and hence declining capacity.
Investigative journalism is a field which is already moving out of the grasp of the media, Hunter pointed out. Sixty per cent of investigative journalism is funded by foundations rather than media, and this which leads him to suppose that stakeholder media - in other words, news generated by organisations that have an interest in the story - might be taking over the role of watchdog. Greenpeace, for example, has a long history of such journalism, such as during its confrontations with Exxon.
Stakeholder journalism differs from traditional journalism in several ways, Hunter explained. For one, it targets a different audience, focussing on informing particular communities and insiders rather than a general audience. Its expertise is narrower but deeper, concentrated on environmental or political issues, for example. Stakeholder reporting aims to accomplish a different objective: telling people what they should do, rather than just what to think about. It is transparent about where it is coming from and what it thinks is 'right,' rather than trying to present a balanced argument.
Hunter believes that the news industry will continue to shrink, and that government bailouts, for example, will not bring the public back. This will leave a growing void which stakeholder journalism will fill, heralding the return of partisan media, according to Hunter. With this comes a need for new journalistic training, as it dispels with the idea of objective media, and the need for enhanced legal knowledge. This is where OECD analysis and policy can help, he believes.
In terms of research requirements, Hunter believes that there is an "urgent need" for investigation into new business models for watchdog journalism, something which the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre and the Global Investigative Journalism Network are looking at. He also sees an "urgent need" for new codes of ethics and professional standards adapted to stakeholder media, where objectivity is no longer a core value.
Few would deny the importance of investigative journalism and the need to find a business model to sustain it. Public interest journalism, exposing wrongdoing and corruption, is clearly crucial to a democratic society. But could this be effectively carried out by interested groups rather than by an objective media presence? Stakeholder journalism has the benefit of being clear in its motives, and transparent about the fact that it is not offering a balanced argument: its bias should be obvious to readers. And more investigative stories are undoubtedly beneficial to society if they are from respectable organisations. However, it is important for the public to be able to understand both sides of a case and this is when independent, neutral third party reporting is essential. Stakeholder media can be an extremely useful supplement, but it should not replace traditional media coverage.
by Emma Heald and Christie Silk